Ancient India

Religions | Buddhism


Buddhism opened its doors not only to the Indians of all castes and creed but also to the foreigners who had settled in India-Indo -Greeks and Indo-Scythians. Buddhism was propagated to foreign countries too like Ceylon and Burma, Thailand and Cambodia, Central Asia and China, Nepal and Tibet and the Indonesian countries, Japan, Korea and Mongolia. Thus Buddhism occupies a unique place in the history of Indian religions. Buddha was born as prince Siddhartha in the Sakya tribe.

He was born in the Lumbini grove near the city of Kapilavastu. He was unhappy to see the sufferings of human life. He also left home and wandered as an ascetic for many years. Finally he felt that he received enlightenment i.e. he become Buddha and found the answers to the questions that arose in his mind. Buddha taught that the world is full of sufferings it is due to the desire for worldly things. He showed the path leading to the end of these sufferings and the path is called the Buddha’s eight fold path.

Eight fold paths include eight kinds of action and thought which would show a man how to live a virtuous life.

1. Right faith
2. Right resolve
3. Right speech
4. Right action
5. Right living
6. Right effort
7. Right thought
8. Right concentration

Buddha gave his first sermon at Sarnath where his five former disciples had settled. To these five ascetics he preached his first sermon and called it Dharma Chakraparavartana. Buddha emphasised on the importance of non-violence and forbade the killing of animals as part of religious practices. He urged people to lead good life according to which the purpose of life was to purify the mind and attain Nirvana, i.e. no more rebirths. He started monasteries which were places where Buddhist monks lived and spent their lives praying and preaching Buddhism. These monasteries or viharas were used as schools also.Many people joined Buddhism and very soon it spread in many parts of India. Buddha died at the age of 80 in 483 BC at Kushinagara in the Malla republic. His last words were ‘all composite things decay, strive diligently.

Gautama Buddha

Gautama or Siddharata, the founder of Buddhism was born in 563 BC in Lumbini in the Sakya kshatriya clan of Kapilavastu. His mother was Maya, a princess of the neighbouring clan of the Koliyas. A Maya died in childbirth Siddharatha was brought up by his aunt and stepmother Prajapati Gautami. The sight of an old man, a sick man, a dead body and an ascetic intensified Siddharata’s deep hatred for the world and made him realise the hollowness of worldly pleasures.

After the birth of his son he left home at the age of 29 in search of the Truth. This departure is known as the Great Renunciation. For 6 continuous years he lived as a homeless ascetic seeking instruction under two Brahmin religious teachers and visiting many places. Finding no satisfaction there he practised the severest penances the most rigid austerities and made fruitless efforts to find the Truth. He then gave up penances, took a bath in river Niranjana and sat under a pipal tree at Bodhgaya(modern). Here he attained supreme knowledge and insight. Revelation came to him that the great peace was within his own heart and he must seek it there.

This is known as Nirvana and since then he became Buddha(the Enlightened one) or tathagat(one who attained the Truth). From there he reach Sarnath where he gave his first sermon (dharmachakrapravartana) as a result 5 disciples joined him. Buddha’s last teaching was heard by Subhadra a wandering ascetic and Ananda his favourite disciple. The most renowned among the early converts to his teaching were Sariputta and Moggallan, ascetics of Rajgriha who were converted by Assaji one of the five original disciples.

Buddhist Councils

The first Buddhist council took place in 483 BC at Sattaparni. Religious doctrine were compiled and embodied in Pali canon. The literature is known as Tripitakas. President of the council was Mahakashapa. Upali recited the Vinay Pitaka and Ananda recited the Sutta Pitaka. Vinay Pitaka was the rules of the order and Sutta Pitaka was the great collection of the Buddha’s sermons on matters of doctrine and ethics. The second council was held in 383 BC, 100 years after Buddha’s death at Vaishali under the presidentship of Sabbakami. Here Buddhism was divided into Sthaviras and Mahasanghikas. The third council was held in 250 BC at Patliputra in the reign of Ashoka. The president was Tissa Mogaliputta.

A decision was taken to send missionaries to various parts of the subcontinent. Here a new Pitaka or Abhidharmma Pitaka was added. Secondly canonical literature was precisely and authoritatively settled.

The fourth Buddhist council was held in the 1-2nd AD at Kundalavana, Kashmir in the reign of Kanishka under the leadership of Vasumitra and Asvagosha. Here Buddhism was divided into two broad sects the Mahayana and Hinayana. Hinayana treated Buddha as nothing more than a human being whereas Mahayanism treated him as God and worshipped his idol. Bodhisatva of Mahayanism was a saviour and would help every living organism in attaining Nirvana. The Mahayana sect adopted Sanskrit in place of Pali as their language. The earliest text is Lalitvistara. Later another sect Vajrayana appeared in eastern India. The chief divinities of this sect were the Taras. They did not treat meat, fish, wine etc as taboo in dietary habit and freely consumed them.

Ashoka, Kanishka, Harsha and Palas of Bihar and Bengal were great patron of Buddhism. Upagupta converted Emperor Ashoka to Buddhism. Ashvagosha was first biographer of Buddha who wrote Buddha Charitam in Sanskirt. Nagarjuna propounded the theory of Shunyavada. Pushyamitra Sunga persecuted the Buddhist. Shashanka the Gauda king cut the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya.

Buddhist Scriptures

Vinaya Pitaka:

Mainly deals with rules and regulations which Buddha promulgated. Also gives an account of the life and teaching of the Buddha.

Sutta Pitaka:

It consists chiefly of discourses delivered by Buddha himself on different occasions.

Abhidhamma Pitaka:

It contains the profound philosophy of the Buddha’s teachings.


It contain regulations on the course of life in the monastic order and have two sections – Mahavagga and the Cullavagga.

Buddhist Philosophy

Buddha believed in the theory of actions or Karma. He held that one of the chief features of the universal law of Dharma is as a man acts so shall he be. We get the reward of our past actions in the present life and for our present actions we get rewarded in the future. Buddha had no faith in personal God. A belief in the supernatural was a weakness. He neither admitted nor denied the existence of God. However he believed that a supreme force controls the whole world. To it he gave the name of Dharma. Buddha’s conception of religion was purely ethical. He did not care for worship or rituals. He put all his emphasis on conduct.

He was against useless sacrifices and rituals. According to Buddha, the highest goal of man’s life is to achieve Nirvana. According to him Nirvana meant when there is no craving, no selfishness and no hatred or malice for others. It can be achieved by following the eight fold path.

Contribution of Buddhism to Indian culture

Buddhism greatly influenced the Indian religion. It gave to Indian people a simple and popular religion. It rejected ritualism, sacrifices and dominance of priestly class. It has also left its permanent mark on Indian religious thought. Buddhism appealed to the masses on account of its simplicity, use of vernacular language in its scriptures and teachings and monastic order. Buddhism left deep impact on the society. It gave serious impetus to democratic spirit and social equality. It opened its doors to women and shudras. Buddhism encouraged abolition of distinctions in society and strengthened the principle of social equality.

The Buddhist viharas were used for education purposes. Nalanda, Vikramshila, Taxila, Udyantpuri, Vallabhi and others cities developed as high Buddhist learning centres. Buddhism helped in the growth of literature in the popular language of the people. The literature written both in Pali and Sanskrit were enriched by scholars of Hinyana and Mahayana sects. The Buddhist texts like Tripitakas, Jatakas, Buddha charita, Mahavibhasa, Miliand panho, Lalit Vistara are assets to Indian literature.

Buddhist Mudras

Abhaya Mudra represents protection, peace, benevolence and dispelling of fear. Bhumisparsha Mudra calls upon the earth to witness Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment at Bodh Gaya.Dharmachakra Mudra represents a central moment in the life of Buddha when he preached his first sermon after his enlightenment at Sarnath.DhayanaMudra is the gesture of meditation of the concentration of the good law and the soul. The Varada Mudra signifies offering, welcome, charity, giving, compassion and sincerity.

The Vajra Mudra is the gesture of knowledge. The Vitarka Mudra is the gesture of discussion and transmission of Buddhist teaching. The Gyan Mudra is done by touching tips of the thumb and the index together forming a circle and the hand is held with the palm inward toward the heart. Karana Mudra is the mudra that expels demons and removes obstacles such as sickness or negative thoughts.

Main Sects of Buddhism

Over the period of time Buddhism got divided into three sects – Hinayana or Lesser Wheel, Mahayana or Greater Wheel, Vajrayana or Vehicle of Thunder Bolt.


Its followers believed in the original teachings of Buddha. They sought individual salvation through self- discipline and meditation. They did not believe in idol worship. The oldest school of Hinayana, Buddhism is the Sthaviravada or the Doctrine of the Elders .Its Sanskrit counterpart is known as Sarvastivada or the doctrine that maintains the existence of all things, physical as well as spiritual. Pali the language of the masses was used by Hinayana sect also the concept of Bodhi Sattva is intrinsic to the sect.


The followers believed in the heavenliness of the Buddha and sought the salvation of all through the grace and help of Buddha and Bodhisattvas. It believes in idol worship and that nirvana is not a negative cessation of misery but a positive state of bliss. Mahayana had two chief philosophical schools the Madhyamika and the Yogachara.Madhyamika philosophical Nagarjuna.It propounded school is a midway between uncompromising realism of Hinayanism and idealism of Yogacharya. Yogacharya school was founded by Maitreyanatha.This school completely rejected the realism of Hinayanism and maintained absolute idealism. Sanskrit the language of scholars was used by Mahayana Buddhists. Rulers like Kanishka and Harshvardhana patronized this sect.


The followers believed that salvation could be best attained by acquiring the magical power called vajra. The chief divinities of the sect were the Taras.The sect became popular in Bengal and Bihar.

Important Buddhist Scholars

Asvaghosa was the contemporary of Ruler Kanishka. He was a poet, dramatist, musician, and scholar.

Nagarjuna was the contemporary of Satvahana kings. He pronounced the Madhyamika school of Buddhist philosophy known as Sunyavada.

Asanga was the most important teacher of the Yogacharya or Vijnanavada School founded by his guru Maiteryanath.

Vasubandhu’s greatest work Abhidharmakosa is considered as an important source of Buddhism.

Buddhaghosha lived in 5 AD and was a Pali scholar. The commentaries and the Visuddhimaga written by him are the great addition in the post Tripitakas literature.

Dignaga is a well-known 5-century Buddhist logic scholar.

Decline of Buddhism

By 12th century AD Buddhism had declined in India. It had become a victim to the evils of Brahmanism against which it had fought in the beginning. The Buddhist monks had given up use of people’s language Pali and had taken up Sanskrit thus alienating masses.

The Buddhist monasteries had come to dominate by the corrupt practices that Gautama Buddha had strictly prohibited. The period also saw the emergence of new sect of Buddhism known as Vajrayana and entry of women into the Buddhist Sanghas. The Brahmanical system was reinventing itself and attracting people back to its fold.

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